Every year at Cannes, there are names on the list of speakers and guests that can cause some folks to ask, “What are they doing here?”
You might be wondering that about a pair of speakers for Thursday at Lions Entertainment who were revealed last week—Stephanie McMahon and John Cena of WWE, World Wrestling Entertainment. If you are, wonder no longer. ogilvydo’s resident smark is here to explain.
First off, who are McMahon and Cena? McMahon is WWE’s Chief Brand Officer. (She also happens to be the daughter of WWE’s principal owner and the most successful businessman in professional wrestling history, Vince McMahon.) On screen, she plays an over-the-top, villainous version of herself, eliciting boos from the crowd as an oppressive boss with her real-life husband Triple H (real name: Paul Levesque, also high up in WWE’s corporate leadership).
Cena is the most recognizable current professional wrestler in the world. (Dwayne Johnson, Hollywood’s most bankable action star, began his career in WWE as The Rock, but—sporadic appearances aside—cannot be considered an active professional wrestler). Cena has started to cross over into pop culture as a solid comedic actor, making appearances in recent comedies Trainwreck and Sisters and guest-hosting “The Today Show”. In the ring, he’s a 15-time world champion who preaches “Hustle. Loyalty. Respect.” and raps his own gloriously grandiose hip-hop entrance theme.
So, why are they talking at Cannes?
In a way, WWE might be the most strangely-but-perfectly relevant company to have a presence at Cannes Lions.
While the television world continues to ponder its very existence, WWE’s weekly “Monday Night Raw” program remains one of the steadiest, most dependable shows on the air. The WWE Network, an over-the-top, subscription-based streaming video service, acts as the home for the WWE’s major events and on-demand video library. The Network has had its ups and downs. But in an industry that often talks about “taking risks” and “being first”, the WWE beat many of its sports and entertainment competitors to the uncertain stratosphere of over-the-top, direct-to-consumer streaming. In the future we’ll be watching most of our content over the internet, if not all of it. WWE fans have been watching the company’s biggest events solely on the internet for years now.
Media aside, there’s no doubt that WWE is a very strong global brand. The company has adopted forward-thinking technology, and they have a consistently active and effective use of social media and digital video.
But perhaps the most appropriate reason for WWE to be at Cannes Lions is the same reason professional wrestling often gets criticized.
“You know it’s fake, right?” It’s a line fans have doubtless heard whenever they’ve professed—or sheepishly revealed—their fandom.
The correct response? “Yes. That’s why I like it.” (Free advice: you can also respond with, “You know that ‘Game of Thrones’ is fake too, right?)
Professional wrestling is not quite sports, not quite entertainment; so much so that Vince McMahon has attempted to quite literally rename the industry using the term “sports entertainment”. In pro wrestling’s ancient days, playing in traveling carnivals alongside circus and vaudeville acts, upholding the façade that the bouts were real athletic competition was paramount to its existence. But those days are long gone. Modern adult fans know what they are watching. The façade is still there, it’s just see-through.
It seems that our culture is starting to recognize, and perhaps accept, that there are a lot of façades out there. As consumers, we are promised certain emotions and expectations through the products being sold to us. We live our lives online, often through carefully-crafted media shared to an audience who has chosen to connect with us. Is the image we craft of ourselves online our “Rock”, while our actual, everyday physical interactions our “Dwayne Johnson”? That reality could be closer than we care to admit.
Every public figure is, to some extent, a character. An outsize, ramped-up-to-10 version of themselves. Look no further than the current US Presidential election, where this all might come full circle—one of the candidates is actually a member of WWE’s Hall of Fame and once shaved Vince McMahon’s head on live television. You can look up which one it is, but I think you might be able to figure it out.
When you accept that what you are watching is an illusion, the illusion essentially ceases to exist. Marketers constantly talk about the need to be authentic. At this point, what’s more authentic than a fake fight?